DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There's a feeling of relief in South Korea today. An outbreak of a respiratory virus called MERS seems to be slowing down. Schools are starting to reopen, and hundreds of people are coming out of quarantine. MERS has killed 14 people in South Korea since last month. Many more were infected. This health crisis had a political and economic impact as well, as NPR's Elise Hu reports.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: The plea from South Korean President Park Geun-hye is direct but not so simple.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT PARK GEUN-HYE: (Foreign language spoken).
HU: "Even though you feel anxious," Park says, "Please cooperate so the economy isn't weakened." The world's 14th largest economy was already showing signs of slowdown when something unexpected hit, a viral respiratory illness called MERS. Retiree Park Jang-yeon describes life in Seoul lately.
PARK JANG-YEON: (Through interpreter) The economy is freezing up. People aren't playing sports together. People aren't going to clubs. Society is becoming paralyzed.
HU: Baseball teams play to empty stadiums. Movie theaters say attendance dropped by a third, and government figures show overall retail sales for the first week of June fell nearly 17 percent.
TOM COYNER: Koreans kind of live on a crisis du jour mentality, starting with North Korea to whatever trial and tribulation they're going through, but this one is really got them a little bit unhinged.
HU: Tom Coyner has lived here for two decades. He's the author of the book "Doing Business In South Korea."
COYNER: There is not a strong sense of warm and fuzzies when it comes to confidence in the national leadership to be able to tackle this challenge.
HU: The government admits it was slow off the mark in its initial response. To compensate, it has since responded in such a sweeping way with thousands of school closures and quarantines that even unaffected consumers are staying home. Tens of thousands of tourists have scrapped trips to South Korea, and the president herself postponed her planned visit to the United States. It was supposed to start today and feature a summit with President Obama.
PETER BECK: Bilateral trips do - can give her a shot in the arm because, yes, she has been struggling here at home.
HU: Peter Beck is a professor of Asian studies at Ewha University in Seoul. He says the issues Park was planning on discussing with Obama are as important as ever.
BECK: Korea, because of the tense relations that they have with Japan along with a growing mistrust of China, they're really feeling kind of alone, and so summits are a way of reminding the public that Korea still has a very strong partner that has its back when it's dealing in a very tough neighborhood in Asia.
HU: For now, dealing with the tough neighborhood, which includes North Korea, is taking a backseat to the South Korean president's more pressing need to solve domestic problems. Parks' approval rating is at 33 percent, down from 40 percent before MERS hit. And with worries of the economy further slowing because of MERS, the country's central bank cut the key interest rate to a historic low. Tom Coyner says he's hopeful.
COYNER: South Koreans, being a very highly-educated capable people, will get through this.
HU: The number of new MERS cases appears to be dwindling, giving health officials hope the outbreak has peaked not just for the sake of sick patients, but because the country's collective psyche and economy need healing, too. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.